Remember when Reno was a great town?

An envelope of photographs from Gemco, salvaged from my truck at the Lockwood landfill this week, has me waist-deep in Old Reno.

Gemco, if you don’t recall, was a “budget” retailer circa 1975 B.C. (Before Costco). I remember it as offering merchandise with labels I didn’t recognize, sometimes piled on the floor. But the photo department developed film cheaply, and I was a regular customer.

I last saw those pictures during the Carter administration, so it took a moment to recognize them as some I’d taken on a trip to Reno for a job interview. The tip-off was a shot of my motel, the Holiday Inn South. Today that’s a Super 8 and conveniently located, but back then it was so far out of town that when I saw it, I nearly headed back to the airport. To reach the Centennial Coliseum (now the Reno-Sparks Convention Center) from my boondocks lodging, I had to drive north on Virginia Street through sagebrush. Reno petered out near Plumb Lane. I figured that a company niggardly enough to make me stay way down there would throw nickels around like manhole covers in salary negotiations, too.

I took the job anyway, in part because I already had a bond to Reno: My parents had been married here the week after Pearl Harbor. After my interview, I drove around shooting pictures for them.

Thirty-five years later, those snapshots show that Reno today is strikingly different, though not better in any way I care about.

Harrah’s—the old part, near Second and Virginia—was the tallest structure in Northern Nevada. Downtown was lined with hotels and clubs on a human scale, advertising 99-cent breakfasts, 10-cent beer and $1.99 dinners. (Gas, according to a sign visible in one shot, was 48 cents a gallon.) Five years later, when the first big casinos opened and changed everything, Newsweek would eulogize Reno as “a friendly little antlers-over-the-bar gambling town.”

Meadowood Mall wasn’t even an idea. Park Lane, roofless then, was celebrated as the premier shopping venue between Sacramento and Salt Lake City. It held a shabby Sears, a couple of other large stores and a dozen or so smaller shops. Parker’s Western Wear and a Gray-Reid department store about where Circus Circus is now pretty much wrapped up the retail scene.

My favorite image shows Kiah Lumpkin, of Kiah’s Squeeze In, serving a plate of scrambled eggs and brains. I never worked up the courage (or the desire) to try them, but a generation of UNR students wobbled down North Virginia Street on Sunday mornings reeking of Old Milwaukee and ordered up. Neighboring businesses were storefront affairs, as big as they needed to be, with street parking and owners who knew their customers by name.

I doubt that anyone foresaw that Reno 2008 would have (just for example) 101 pages of attorneys and half a column of Starbucks coffee houses in the phone book. Relatively speaking, we’re Big Time now.

When I try to think of something that 1975 city lacked, though, I can’t come up with anything that matters to me.

Not everyone agrees. The first year we were here, a woman stopped my wife on the street and blurted, “You didn’t get those clothes in Reno, did you?” I doubt that happens today.

Personally, though, I could buy everything I wanted from people I knew, call my doctor by his first name when I bumped into him at Hilton’s Pharmacy, then in 10 minutes, be out of town in any direction.

OK, maybe there were only six places to buy jeans. Then as now, though, I only wore one pair at a time.